S.F.’s inability to nab ‘Alcatraz’ spotlights film industry woes 

click to enlarge It may be Alcatraz but it's filmed in Vancouver. - COURTESY FOX TV
  • Courtesy Fox TV
  • It may be Alcatraz but it's filmed in Vancouver.

Alcatraz is already one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks, and now the former federal prison is starring in a new television series. But The City is seeing very few lights, cameras or action from the production.

The Fox series “Alcatraz,” which debuted Jan. 16 and is centered on the wildly popular tourist attraction in the middle of the Bay, is being filmed about 950 miles north of San Francisco in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the cost of production is far cheaper.

The production did spend about two weeks in San Francisco last year capturing footage of the island and other idyllic San Francisco locations, which appear now and again in episodes. And when the production had its premiere party, it was held on The Rock.

For city officials trying to revive San Francisco’s film industry, the location slight is disappointing, but all too common. Productions often choose to fake it, to the detriment of the once-thriving industry.

“I’m very disappointed they didn’t film the whole series in San Francisco,” said San Francisco Film Commission Executive Director Susannah Robbins. “I had many conversations with them about our rebate program and the possibility of building the sets at Treasure Island, where the rent would have been fully rebateable. But the feedback I got was that due to the huge tax incentives offered in British Columbia, it was cheaper to film it there.”

And a lack of those “huge tax incentives,” such as the 33 percent credit for productions in British Columbia, is what’s blamed for San Francisco’s film industry failing after it peaked in 1999. In 2000, there were 2,263 film industry jobs, which declined to 1,164 by 2006. During that time, there was a loss of more than $123 million in spending and $8.4 million in tax revenue, according to a Film Commission report.

In 2006, a film rebate program was created in an effort to attract more productions, and since then signs of life have emerged.

But while “Alcatraz” remains on the air even as its ratings decline, it’s a painful reminder of all San Francisco is missing — the jobs, the millions in local spending, the excitement of filmmaking.

Robbins said the production is expected to return to The City next month for more filming, “as not everything can be faked in Vancouver.”

Warner Bros., which produces the series, declined to comment on its choice of production cities.

The last show to be filmed in The City was “Trauma.” In 2009, NBC based it here, with post-production work on Treasure Island, and it showed how such a production can boost the economy. But “Trauma” was short-lived — the 18th and final episode aired in April 2010.

All told, the production spent $20.9 million locally, hired 305 residents as part of its cast and crew, and employed 1,182 residents as background actors for a few days each.

Rebates trying to keep The City in the frame

Since The City offered a rebate for film productions in 2006, $1.5 million has been doled out to movies such as “Milk” and famed director Philip Kaufman’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”

The film rebate program is set to expire at the end of year, but a proposal to extend it will be considered by the Board of Supervisors in the coming months.  

Productions receiving rebates have spent a total of $40 million in San Francisco, according to a city controller’s report. That includes spending on food, hotel stays, construction and employment. The rebate program been part of a strategy to revive an industry that peaked in 1999, then tanked between 2001 and 2006.

“Overall, I’d say we’re doing pretty well,” said Film Commission Executive Director Susannah Robbins.

But it hasn’t been easy or steady. In 2005, there were 802 shoot days in San Francisco, including still shots, commercials and filmmaking. In 2011, there were 945. But in 2009, “our worst year,” there were just 645 shooting days, Robbins said.

The rebate program broadened last year to apply to documentaries and reality television series. Robbins is working on what form the film rebate extension proposal will take. She plans to visit Los Angeles to solicit feedback from major studios.

For now, it is unknown which big film shoot will happen here next or what TV series will make San Francisco its home.

“At this time, we don’t have any definite features or TV shows coming in, but we hear rumors of possibilities and of location managers scouting for possible films,” Robbins said. “Currently, TV commercials and still photo shoots are making up most of the permits being filmed.”


On set in The City

What is San Francisco’s film rebate program?

Reimbursement of fees paid to city departments and the 1.5 percent payroll tax; rebate is capped at $600,000 per production.

Facts about film productions that
received rebates:

$1.5M Total amount in film rebates dispersed

1,135 Total San Francisco residents employed

$12.5M Total paid in wages to
San Francisco residents

$40.5M Total local spending, including wages

Film productions based in San Francisco using rebate program since 2006:

Production and rebate

Harrison Montgomery: $42,150

La Mission: $10,363

Milk: $99,215

Trauma: $760,958

Hemingway & Gellhorn: $550,715

Knife Fight: $45,522

Cherry: $10,045

Untitled Henry Selick Disney Project: N/A

Sources: City Controller’s Office, San Francisco Film Commission

Production value

Declining film industry between 2001-06

1,099 Film industry jobs lost

$123M Spending activity lost

$8.4M Loss in tax revenue

Filming activity

2005: 802 shooting days

2009: 645 shooting days

2011: 945 shooting days

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